11 Treasures of Jazz Performance on DVD

 From DVD Beaver, April 2007. — J.R.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of jazz films —documentary records of particular jazz performances and narrative films that incorporate jazz in some fashion, in their soundtrack scores and/or in their stories. But in some cases, identifying which films belong in which category is simply a matter of personal taste. Consider, for instance, Black and Tan and St. Louis Blues, two landmark jazz shorts directed in 1929 by Dudley Murphy—-a fascinating figure who straddled the avant-garde and the mainstream, having both collaborated with Fernand Léger on Ballet mécanique and Paul Robeson on The Emperor Jones and directed several Hollywood pictures, and who’s been receiving some belated recognition lately thanks to Susan B. Delson’s excellent biography, Dudley Murphy: Hollywood’s Wild Card (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). I would argue that Black and Tan, which stars Duke Ellington, is important chiefly as a narrative film, whereas St. Louis Blues is mainly important because it features the only appearance and performance on film by the great blues singer Bessie Smith. (Both are available, incidentally, on Hollywood Rhythm Vol. 1: The Best of Jazz and Blues, along with ten other shorts, most of them from the 30s and most of them released by Paramount.

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Great 30s Movies on DVD (…and a few that should be)

 Commissioned by DVD Beaver, and published by that site in February 2010. I’ve updated or added a few links, delighted to report that all the unavailable items can now be accessed in some form or another. — J.R.
Note: Just for the record, I’ve already written at one time or another for this site about Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!, Judge Priest, Love Me Tonight, M, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, Pilgrimage, and Vampyr – which is the only reason why I’m not doing so now.So add these seven titles to all of those found below (listed alphabetically) and you’ll have 28 recommendations in all.  And even this list is very far from exhaustive. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned Sacha Guitry, the witty playwright-filmmaker-actor whose cinematic “golden age,” 1936-1938, comprising no less than nine features (my favorite is the trilingual The Pearls of the Crown), are all available with English subtitles in one gigantic box set issued in France by Gaumont, Sacha Guitry L’Age d’or 1936-1938. But don’t get me started… (NOTE:  HYPERLINKS ARE ON TITLES, COVERS or BOLD, MAROON, UNDERLINED TEXT)

  L’Atalante.  Jean Vigo’s only full-length feature (1934, 89 min.), one of the supreme masterpieces of French cinema, was edited and then brutally re-edited while Vigo was on his deathbed, so a definitive restoration is impossible.

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Paranoid Illusions [THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE]

From the Chicago Reader (March 11, 1988). —J.R.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Written by George Axelrod

With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh, and James Edwards.

The first and only time I’ve seen a good 35-millimeter print of Carl Dreyer’s 1944 masterpiece Day of Wrath was in Europe about a month ago. The film was being rereleased, along with Dreyer’s 1925 Master of the House and his 1955 Ordet, at several small theaters in Paris, and the difference in seeing it in optimal conditions was incalculable. The carnal impact of the film’s sound track, lighting, compositions, camera movements, and performances may be dimly evident in duped 16-millimeter prints and on video, but the overall effect is like that of viewing a great painting through several layers of gauze, or hearing a great symphony through earmuffs. By and large, this prophylactic experience is the only way our film heritage is preserved for most people in the U.S. — which is another way of saying that it isn’t really preserved at all.

Why are major rereleases of old movies in spanking new prints — apart from Disney cartoon features, and the five Hitchcocks that resurfaced a few years back — such a rare occurrence in this country, and so common in France?… Read more »

1991 in Movies

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 1992). — J.R.

Looking at the big-time U.S. studio releases of 1991 — most of which enjoyed free supplements to their hefty advertising budgets from every branch of the media — we’d have to conclude that this was a year without enduring masterpieces. The best are intelligent entertainments, most of which faded quickly from memory. If I had to choose the ten best from this group, they’d be (in alphabetical order): Barton Fink, Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, Defending Your Life, The Fisher King, For the Boys, Jungle Fever, Once Around, Rambling Rose, and Thelma and Louise. Equally good or even better are some new American pictures that didn’t get anything like the same national attention: Chameleon Street, City of Hope, The Deadman (only 37 minutes long, but better than most features I saw), Hangin’ With the Homeboys, A Little Stiff, My Own Private Idaho, Poison, Reunion, and Trust. The best American documentaries that come to mind are Butoh: Body at the Edge of Crisis, Inside Life Outside, Lines of Fire, Paris Is Burning, Private Conversations on the Set of Death of a Salesman, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and the videos of Sadie Benning.… Read more »

O’Neill’s Next-to-Last Testament: THE ICEMAN COMETH

Published by the web site Fandor on January 4, 2011. — J.R.

It’s widely and justly believed that the two greatest plays of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) were both written near the tail end of his career — The Iceman Cometh, completed in 1939 and first staged in 1946, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, completed in 1941 and produced only posthumously, in 1956. What’s less widely known is that the action of both plays unfolds during the same summer, 1912, when O’Neill was 24, after having attempted to commit suicide the previous spring. As his biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb note in their 2000 O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo (New York: Applause), “the plays follow almost literally the chronology of O’Neill’s youthful years, with Iceman (written first) set in ‘summer 1912’ and Long Day’s Journey (which can be regarded as its sequel) set on ‘a day in August, 1912’.” (Another one of O’Neill’s finest works, and his only comedy, the 1933  Ah, Wilderness!, is also set in 1912.)

Both late masterpieces are obsessive distillations of a lifetime of brooding, with the three-hour 1962 film version of Long Day’s Journey into Night directed by Sidney Lumet and the four-hour 1973 film version of The Iceman Cometh directed by John Frankenheimer having served, for many filmgoers, as the versions of reference.… Read more »

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the fourth dozen)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the fourth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Taste of Cherry
A middle-aged man who’s contemplating suicide drives around the hilly, dusty outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will bury him if he succeeds and retrieve him if he fails. This minimalist yet powerful and life-enhancing feature by Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s House?, Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees) never explains why the man wants to end his life, and is even inconclusive about whether or not he succeeds, yet every moment in his daylong odyssey carries a great deal of poignancy and philosophical weight. The film has remained in many ways Kiarostami’s most controversial film ever since it shared the 1997 paume d’or at Cannes with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, in part because it entrusts so much of its meaning and power to the audience and the nature of its own investment in what it’s watching. Like many of Kiarostami’s other films, it’s centered around the simultaneously private and public experience of a character in a car giving rides to others, and just as the experience of watching a film in a theater combines private responses with public reactions, this is a film that speaks to both of these situations.… Read more »

Notes on Oda Kaori’s ARAGANE (from Lisbon)

Originally posted on June 13, 2016. — J.R.

It’s embarrassing for me to confess that I let over six weeks pass from the time that  Oda Kaori sent me an email from Osaka with a link to her 68-minute film Aragane until I finally found time to watch it — during a day of rest in Lisbon, in  between professional  engagements. This has been an exceptionally busy spring for me in terms of writing, travel, and other commitments, but I suspect that another reason why it’s taken me so long was the fearful prospect of watching a documentary of that length about work in a coal mine in Sarajevo. I don’t know why this prospect discouraged me so much, but the fault is mine.

Kaori was one of the original dozen or so students to enroll in Béla Tarr’s Film.Factory when it started three years ago, whom I met during my first of my four two-week sessions there; she was also one of the students most affected by the films of Peter Thompson, whose email I quoted from in my article about Film.Factory, and whom I once lent a DVD of Maya Deren’s films at her request. I believe that Aragane was her thesis film; she has shown it at a few Japanese venues, including the Yamagata film festival, and she is hoping to find a distributor for it.… Read more »

2 or 3 Things I Know About Demy

Written for a retrospective catalog devoted to Jacques Demy, published by the San Sebastian International Film Festival, September 15-24, 2011. — J.R.

“Braque, Picasso, Klee, Miro, Matisse….C’est ça, la vie.”–- Maxence in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

“Life is disappointing, isn’t it?”

–- Kyoko in Tokyo Story

1

I’ve never come across any critical discussion of common traits in the separate films of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, who lived together for three decades. Their oeuvres are in fact quite different and distinct from one another, but one striking characteristic they share as filmmakers is their preoccupation with indexing and cross-referencing their own works within their own films.

In chronicling and excerpting her own previous work, Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès (2008) brings this tendency to a climax, but her DVD containing Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000) and its sequel, Deux Ans Après, already formalizes and optimizes this tendency — which can be traced within and between some of her previous films — by allowing one to leap via one’s remote control from a character in the former documentary to the same person being filmed two years later (or vice versa). In a comparable spirit, Demy transplants Cécile/Lola (Anouk Aimée), the title heroine of his first feature (1960), from Nantes to Los Angeles in his fifth feature, Model Shop (1968), after having had her killed offscreen in Rochefort in his fourth feature, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1966).… Read more »

On PROVIDENCE

From Cinema Scope issue 39, Summer 2014. — J.R.

 

PROVIDENCE DVD

I shelled out $56.19 in US dollars (including postage) to acquire the definitive and restored, director-approved DVD of Providence (1977) from French Amazon, and I hasten to add that this was money well spent. Notwithstanding the passion and brilliance of Alain Resnais’ first two features, Providence is in many ways my favourite of his longer works, quite apart from the fact that it’s the only one in English. And I can’t ascribe this preference simply to the contribution of David Mercer (1928-1980). I recently resaw the only other Mercer-scripted film I’m familiar with, Karel Reisz’s Morgan!,  and aside from the wit of its own sarcastic dialogue I mainly found it just as flat and tiresome as I did in 1966, for reasons that are well expounded in Dwight Macdonald’s contemporary review (reprinted in his collection On Movies).

 

I haven’t yet been able to see The Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), Resnais’ swan song, but clearly part of what gives Providence even more resonance now, writing less than a month after Resnais’ death, is the theme it shares with his penultimate feature, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2013): an old writer facing his own death, and trying to create some form of art in relation to it.… Read more »

DVD AWARDS 2016 XIII edition (Il Cinema Ritrovato)

DVD AWARDS 2016

XIII edition (Il Cinema Ritrovato)

 

Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Lucien Logette, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti (chairman), and Jonathan Rosenbaum. (Although Mark McElhatten wasn’t able to attend the festival this year, he has continued to function as a very active member of the jury.)

 

 

1. BEST SPECIAL FEATURES:

PAPATAKIS

NICO PAPATAKIS BOX SET  (France, 1963-1992) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD)

 

A comprehensive and cogent presentation of a neglected filmmaker from Ethiopia and a singular cultural figure in postwar France who ran an existentialist cabaret, produced major films by Jean Genet and John Cassavetes, gave the German singer Nico her name, and made many striking films over four decades. (JR)

 

 

2. BEST DVD SERIES:

gaumont

COLLECTION 120 ANS N.1 1885-1929 (France, 1885-1929) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD)

To celebrate its 120 years of activity in the film industry, Gaumont has published a series of nine beautiful box sets that summarize the whole history of cinema. Divided by decades, the box sets consist of twenty to thirty-five DVDs with the most representative films marked with a daisy symbol. The editions include films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, Dreville, Duvivier, Gabin, Louis de Funès, Pialat and Deville but also masterpieces made by Losey, Fellini or Bergman that the French company co-produced.… Read more »

City Without Tears [Tsai Ming-liang's THE RIVER]

This appeared, in a somewhat different form, in the April 14, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

THE RIVER **** Directed by Tsai Ming-liang Written by Tsai, Yang Bi- ying, and Tsai Yi-chun With Lee Kang-sheng, Miao Tien, Lu Hsiao-ling, Chen Shiang-chyi,Chen Chao-jung, and Ann Hui.

1. I wouldn’t know how to plunge headlong into a single approach towards a film as strange and as shocking as The River – Tsai Ming-liang’s third feature, playing this week at Facets Multimedia — so a series of alternative perspectives seems desirable. The problem is, even starting off by labeling this movie a masterpiece reminds me how such an assertion in some cases amounts to a gamble more than a certainty, however much one may prefer to pretend otherwise.

What’s my alibi for this lack of confidence? First of all, a sense that when one encounters something as downright peculiar as The River, the first impulse is not to assert anything at all but to ask, “What the hell is this?” And to pretend to answer such a question, one ultimately has to fall back on one’s experience before even attempting an analysis.

In my case, I’ve experienced The River twice, both times in less than ideal circumstances: with German subtitles at the Vienna Film Festival two and a half years ago, and, just before writing this, a copy of an English commercial video, with English subtitles, that a friend was kind enough to make for me when I discovered that there wasn’t any other way I could see this film again before reviewing it.… Read more »

Eleven Treasures of Jazz Performance on DVD

Commissioned and published by DVD Beaver in 2007. Last year [2015], Ehsan Khoshbakht and I put together sidebar for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy, “Jazz Goes to the Movies,” and then a reconfigured version of this a few months later at the Festival on Wheels in Ankara, Turkey, which led both of us to revisit many of these titles and releases.  — J.R.

blackandtan

DudleyMurphybook

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of jazz films — documentary records of particular jazz performances and narrative films that incorporate jazz in some fashion, in their soundtrack scores and/or in their stories. But in some cases, identifying which films belong in which category is simply a matter of personal taste. Consider, for instance, Black and Tan and St. Louis Blues, two landmark jazz shorts directed in 1929 by Dudley Murphy —- a fascinating figure who straddled the avant-garde and the mainstream, having both collaborated with Fernand Léger on Ballet mécanique and Paul Robeson on The Emperor Jones and directed several Hollywood pictures, and who’s been receiving some belated recognition lately thanks to Susan B. Delson’s excellent biography, Dudley Murphy: Hollywood’s Wild Card (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). I would argue that Black and Tan, which stars Duke Ellington, is important chiefly as a narrative film, whereas St.Read more »

Looking Back in Anger [STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH]

From the Chicago Reader (February 27, 2004).

On February 12, 2018, Ken Jacobs sent me the following email:

Dear Jonathan,

I first came upon writing on STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH a week ago.  Sorry.
Appreciate what you had to say except, naturally, for your take on my Muslim comment.  So I must’ve failed to make clear my despising of all religions with their bloody track records.  I go so far as to consider the to-do about Nazis overblown: a momentary political organization that, employing Ford up-to-date industrial methods, accomplished the actual near-fulfillment/”final solution” to 2 000 years of strenuous Christian degradation, torture and outright slaughter of Jews.  “Race” had just been invented maybe a century earlier but murdering Jews was an enduring Christian project.  (Nor were Nazis killing any other “race”.)  A fact to remember about WW2: Christians murdered Jews.  A land war coupled to a religious “war” and the war they were allowed to win by USA as long as they could keep costing the Soviets.  Don’t get me started….
I’m remembering one line in the film about “a bedtime story gone amok”.  That is my take on these force-fed beliefs given helpless children wired up to believe, needing to believe if they’re to survive (“no, you can’t run into traffic”).  

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Building from Ground Zero: A HEN IN THE WIND

Written for the British Film Institute’s DVD release of this film in early 2011. — J.R.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call A Hen in the Wind (1948) one of the more neglected films of Yasujiro Ozu, especially within the English-speaking world. Made immediately before one of his key masterpieces, Late Spring (1949), it has quite understandably been treated as a lesser work, but its strengths and points of interest deserve a lot more attention than they’ve received. It isn’t discussed in Noël Burch’s To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (1979) or even mentioned in Kyoko Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952 (1992), the English-language study where it would appear to be most relevant. Although it isn’t skimped in David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), its treatment in Donald Richie’s earlier Ozu (1974) is relatively brief and dismissive. It seems pertinent that even the film’s title, which I assume derives from some Japanese expression, has apparently never been explicated in English.

It may be an atypical feature for Ozu, but it is stylistically recognizable as his work from beginning to end, especially when it comes to poetic handling of setting (a dismal industrial slum in the eastern part of Tokyo, where the heroine rents a cramped upstairs room in a house) and its use of ellipsis in relation to the plot.Read more »

Missing the Target

From the Chicago Reader, June 18, 1993. (This is also reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics.) — J.R.

Who is correct? Are we becoming better off or worse off? Where are we heading? It depends on whom you mean by “we.” — Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations

“Men never get this movie,” a woman says to her friend in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, referring to Leo McCarey’s 1957 An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, which is showing on TV. In fact, we’re told this again and again. Another woman tearfully describes the last scene of An Affair to Remember to the hero, who remarks, “That’s a chick’s movie.” To clinch the point, female characters in this romantic comedy are repeatedly shown watching this movie and sobbing (as if the TV stations in Seattle and Baltimore, where most of the action takes place, showed little else), and men are never seen watching it at all. And just in case we’re left with any doubts about the matter, the review of Sleepless in Seattle in Variety assures us that An Affair to Remember‘s “squishy romantic elements appeal to women more than men.”

This is utter nonsense.… Read more »